t’s that time of year again. Everyone is making New Year’s resolutions, even amidst the burnout and stress of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with resolutions. Many people find them helpful in pursuit of their goals. But doing them out of obligation or because you feel pressured may cause more harm than good.
A better alternative to setting unrealistic (and often detrimental, or unhealthy) resolutions to jumpstart the new year is practicing radical self-acceptance and mindfulness all year long. Once you realize you don’t need a new you, you likely won’t even want to set resolutions. Because the current you has plenty to love.
The “New Year, New You” Mindset Can Be Harmful to Your Mental Health
According to research, only about 8% of people who make New Year’s resolutions actually meet their goals. (1) The rest, a whopping 92%, fail to stick with the changes they’re hoping to make. As such, New Year’s resolutions tend to be counterproductive. They can lead to false hope and failure. This may be especially true for people who set incredibly lofty goals that aren’t realistic.
Of course, it can be easy to look at the new year as a great time to start fresh. But setting steep goals you aren’t likely to fulfill may result in low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and failure, and depression. And those are the very things all of us are trying to avoid, regardless of circumstances, but especially for those who may be struggling with an eating disorder or in recovery.
New Year’s Resolutions Tend to Prioritize Weight Loss and Exercise Over Self-love
The most common resolutions people make tend to include exercising more, improving their diet, and/or losing weight. (2) Many people who make these resolutions are likely focused on image-based outcomes, as opposed to becoming healthier, practicing intuitive eating, or reducing risk of various medical conditions.
Some people may want to be skinnier. Others may desire more muscle mass to achieve the “ideal” body. No wonder, given the relentless messaging the media feeds us about what constitutes a “desirable” body type. People who set goals related to body size and shape often think they will be happy once they achieve a certain weight or pant size. But chasing an ideal won’t lead to genuine happiness or self-love.
The pressure to join in the trend is immense. And you likely feel it from all angles—friends, family, social media, marketing emails in your inbox, commercials and ads, and gyms running new membership specials. The list goes on and on. But you don’t have to step in line with everyone else who wants to lose weight or exercise more in the coming year.
After all, many people turn to unhealthy behaviors to achieve these goals. These can include fad diets that eliminate entire food groups, excessive exercising, especially to compensate for “cheating” on a diet, or even using anabolic steroids (often a symptom of an eating disorder in men). These behaviors can escalate to an eating disorder if unaddressed. And eating disorders are often associated with profound distress, depression, guilt, and shame.
Goals Are Great, But They Aren’t Everything
Yes, goals give us something to work toward and often give us purpose and direction, but they aren’t everything. When it comes to life satisfaction, there are many other things that can make us happy, such as:
- Enhancing our relationships and social connections (quality over quantity)
- Expressing daily gratitude
- Practicing compassion for ourselves and others
- Doing things that bring us pleasure and joy
- Practicing regular acts of kindness
- Investing in memorable experiences, such as a trip or vacation
By prioritizing things like gratitude and quality time with loved ones, you take the focus off future and conditional happiness and, instead, concentrate on genuine happiness.
Saying Good-Bye to New Year’s Resolutions
New Year’s resolutions aren’t the only option for improving your life. And you don’t have to start in the new year, either. After all, the new year is just an arbitrary date. You can start any time.
One major thing you can do includes focusing on being in the present, no matter what you’re doing, whether you’re eating dinner with your partner or taking your dog for a walk. Put your phone away and truly immerse yourself in the present moment. Pay attention to how you’re feeling, what you’re grateful for, and what you’re enjoying about your experience. Not only will the other person (or animal) notice when you aren’t distracted, but you’ll likely notice that you do, too.
Another way to jumpstart your happiness is to re-evaluate your relationship with food and exercise. Learn to practice mindful eating, which involves engaging your five senses, expressing gratitude for where the food came from and how it arrived on your plate, and savoring the moment. Mindful eating is the exact opposite of eating for weight loss or management.
Mindfulness can extend to movement, too. Instead of exercising to achieve an outcome, mindful movement involves participating in a physical activity with your full awareness. It means paying attention to how your body feels as it moves. And it’s even better if you enjoy the activity you’re doing. So explore activities you love and would like doing, even if they didn’t burn calories or tone your muscles. Examples include:
- Joining a sports team
- Going for walks or bike rides
- Skiing or snowboarding
- Jumping rope
- Practicing yoga
- Boxing classes
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Rock climbing
- Hula hooping
Cut Out Comparing and Criticizing Yourself
If you are in recovery from an eating disorder and you’re going to eliminate anything in your life, it would be comparing yourself to others. This may be tough, given how much time we spend on social media. So you may want to try staying off social media in January, at least until the “inspirational” posts die down.
Also, try to avoid criticizing yourself, including your looks, your weight, and your food preferences. Self-criticism is often a habit formed over many years, so it can be difficult to break. But one way to combat it is to write down and read aloud a list of positive affirmations.
These positive affirmations ought to be personal to you and your journey. But here are some to get you started:
- I deserve love, respect, and kindness.
- I am not defined by my past behaviors.
- My worth does not depend on my weight or size.
- I will treat myself with the same compassion I grant others.
- I deserve to eat foods that bring me joy.
Write this list down and hang it where you’ll see it every day. Reading it out loud. It can help you manage difficult emotions, such as anxiety, depression, guilt, anger, or resentment. And remember, you don’t have to begin these practices under the guise of a New Year’s resolution or an endeavor to become a new and improved you—simply do them because they make you feel good. And if you forget to read your affirmations or to engage in mindful eating or movement, that’s okay, because you can’t fail if you didn’t set unrealistic expectations about changing overnight.
At Within Health, we provide virtual treatment programs to help you treat and recover from your eating disorder at home or on the go. Our clinical care team will work with you to outline and meet goals at your own pace, while supporting you every step of the way. If you'd like to learn more, read about our approach, or call us today.
- The Wharton School. (2013). It’s January 7: Are You Sticking to Your New Year’s Resolution?
- YouGov America. (2020). Exercise and sticking to a healthy diet are the most common 2021 New Year’s Resolutions.